Precautions Can Prevent Loss Of Lives, Property During Droughts And Wildfires, UF Specialist Says

Serya Yesilcay

Carol Lehtola, (352) 392-8064
Alan Long, (352) 846-0891

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GAINESVILLE — Prevention is the key word in fighting another season of droughts and wildfires, and all Floridians should be aware of measures they can take for a safe summer, a University of Florida disaster preparedness expert said.

Urban and rural residents alike need to know what to do when disaster strikes, said Carol Lehtola, agricultural safety specialist at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“With disasters related to droughts, you have to be prepared for when, not if, they will happen, because rapid prevention and intervention is what will ultimately save lives and property,” Lehtola said.

During wildfires, that could mean contacting the fire department or Florida’s arson hotline at 1-800-342-5869 to report any suspicious activity. In the event a fire threatens a home or other structures, residents also can use garden hoses to fight flames or water down roofs until help arrives, Lehtola said.

Reducing the intensity of wildfires through controlled burns is another safety measure people can take, Lehtola said. Although controlled fire can be an effective tool, land managers should seek professional help if they have any questions about their own fire-safety knowledge, said Alan Long, a UF professor who studies the use and effects of fire in forestry.

But during a fire, perhaps the most important safety measure people can take is timely and efficient evacuation, Lehtola said, urging residents to cooperate fully with disaster teams.

Droughts also require farmers to take special precautions, Lehtola said.

“They need to choose which crops to plant, use water conservation measures and tag animals properly — especially horses and cattle — properly to identify them against future losses,” she said.

Although most people see droughts as unique, short-term problems, their effects last long and touch life at every level, said Martha Roberts, deputy commissioner with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee.

“People need to know this drought, nationally, is a four- or five-year situation at least — we are not in the first few months, we are already going into the third year,” Roberts said. “Originally, we were told to expect normal rain patterns in May, but now the forecasts are extended for more drought.”

The national policy for droughts was written for major grain-producing states in the Midwest and is difficult to apply to Florida, Roberts said.

“We really need to convince Congress to address long-term drought policy for the entire U.S. and for Florida farmers to take massive long-term efforts,” she said. “Right now we have crops in the Panhandle that will require replanting, animal feed shortages, as well as a drop in animal health in general, besides the numerous destructive wildfires every day.”

During the peak of the dry season in 1998, from May to June, droughts cost North and West Florida $183.5 million in crop, livestock and pasture damage, while forestry losses accounted for $443 million, according to figures from the state agriculture department.

But droughts and wildfires have been a constant in Florida’s history, and the situation now is at least as serious a fire risk as it was in 1998, Long said.

“Plants need to draw their moisture from the ground, which is a lot drier than it was in 1998, and that increases the risk of fires,” he said.

Fires during the first half of the wildfire season typically happen because of arson and negligence, Long said. But he predicted that would be less of a concern this year, because Floridians are more aware of the potentials for disaster.

“We also see a lot more prevention activities, with teams going around neighborhoods to educate, and people are becoming more aware,” he said. “So hopefully, fires due to human factors are less likely to happen.”

Lightning storms are the cause of most wildfires during the second half of the fire season, Long said. &quotBut fire control agencies in the state are linked a lot more closely now, which provides some reassurance that potential disasters can be averted.”

Even though most Floridians are more experienced now, having lived through the wildfires in 1998, many — especially newcomers — still need to know where to go for help, Lehtola said.

“County extension offices and UF extension’s Web-based disaster handbook are good first resources to both find out about precautions and to get disaster assistance,” Lehtola said.

For more information on disaster prevention, visit the UF Web site at